There Is No Cat

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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Man Ray died in 1982. Marcel Duchamp met him at the station.

When I saw this proclamation by the mayor of Lawrence, Kansas, declaring February 4, April 1, March 28, July 15, August 2, August 7, August 16, August 26, September 18, September 22, October 1, October 17, and October 26, 2006 as International Dadaism Month, I thought, "no way". But the site it appears on certainly seems to be legit; they talk about garbage pickup and all the stuff a normal city would mention on their web site. Then I saw this picture of the mayor, Dennis "Boog" Highberger. Yes way.

Mark your calendars. We've already missed one day of the month. (via Metafilter)

Posted at 6:38 PM
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Saturday, February 18, 2006

Lipstick on a pig

Despite the fact that I think the web is a lousy forum for conversation, that that's inherent in its design and likely to never be fully successfully overcome, and that we should instead focus on what the web is good for, I've added support for coComment, which allows you to track your comments across web sites. It claims to improve conversations. We'll see. I don't know how much I'll use it; I'm not crazy about centralized services like this, and the fact that it requires extra actions by the user each time they comment seems like a big flaw. Like anything that attempts to promote conversation on the web, I think it's lipstick on a pig, but hey, sometimes a pig needs lipstick, and it doesn't really hurt.

Posted at 7:46 PM
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Friday, February 17, 2006

A story

So the half dozen or so of you who visit this site regularly and the dozen or two who came here because of a cryptic link on Doc Searls' site have read my brilliantly reasoned explanation of why blogs suck at conversation and either nodded your heads or nodded off. Those of you who nodded your heads probably followed that with something like, "Okay, Mr. Wise Guy, so blogs and the web suck at conversation. But there's 27 million blogs out there, so they must be good for something, no?"

And it's true, blogs and the web are indeed good for something.

Some years back Christina Wodtke, a leading light in the Information Architecture world, had an e-mail newsletter called "Gleanings" about, well, information architecture, something I took a strong interest in because I'm a magpie and I'll take insights into how to make good web sites wherever I can find them, and the IA community seemed to have a lot of good insights. At one point, she went on vacation for a few weeks and asked her readers to volunteer to guest edit an issue. I raised my hand, and among the items in the issue I edited was a rumination on the history of television, and the first person who made television that was really television, Ernie Kovacs:

I've long felt that the web is just waiting for our very own Ernie Kovacs to finally show us how this all should be done. Who's Ernie Kovacs, you ask? Basically, he was the first person to make television as television, rather than as radio with pictures or plays in front of cameras. He was a comic genius, and invented much of the visual vocabulary of television that we take for granted today. His "Eugene", a half-hour completely without dialog, was absolutely amazing, and the sight gags he invented to take advantage of the medium are still being recycled to this day.

Not long after that, I decided that I had found my Ernie Kovacs of the web, Derek Powazek, and his site, Fray:

Fray began in September, 1996, with one simple idea: That the web was the ultimate conduit for personal storytelling. We saw a future web full of personal voices, where everyone has the power to tell their stories.

Nine years later, that's the web we have. Personal sites, homepages, and blogs are blooming like flowers on every topic imaginable. From the sublime to the silly, the beautiful to the banal, there are more personal voices on the web today than anyone ever could have imagined. Maybe we can take a tiny bit of credit for that.

That's what blogs and the web are good for: telling stories.

I remembered this last night as I was trying to go to sleep, pondering what I had posted, and also a post by Kathryn Cramer asking what blogs were for. (Since Kathryn edits stories professionally, I'm kind of surprised she didn't come to that conclusion herself....)

Storytelling is as primal for humans as conversation. It's something we've done for millenia. The two things are related, but they're different. Conversations are about the give and take of two or more people. Storytelling is more about performance and reaction. Conversation is collaboration, storytelling less so. The idea of the web as storytelling platform was in vogue in the late '90s, with conferences being held, but that idea seems to have faded as the idea that the web is about conversation has grown. I think that's a mistake. Stories are the real currency of the web. Other tools on the Internet are more about conversation.

I wrote before about the reasons the web is poorly suited for conversation. But the characteristics that make it so, the fragmentation, the asynchronicity, the sense of place relating to person instead of topic, make it well suited for storytelling, or at least don't harm storytelling the way they harm conversation. The farther from real time a conversation gets, the more difficult it becomes to sustain. But a story can survive that; centuries and millenia of books testify to that.

I've been finding myself increasingly disenchanted with the web because I've experienced these great community building conversational tools, and the web wasn't living up to them or to the hype of it as a conversational medium. Now that I remember what the web is good for, maybe I won't be so disenchanted, and can focus my desire for conversation at tools that do a decent job of supporting it like e-mail, IM, and IRC.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Posted at 6:27 PM
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Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Bars of Usenet and Blogistan

Doc Searls quotes Don Marti to the effect that "The distributed online forum called 'blogs' is slowly reinventing all the features that the distributed online forum called 'Usenet' invented 20 years ago. Who will reinvent 'kill thread' for the RSS aggregator?"

The correspondence between Usenet and Blogistan is not exact. I believe that Usenet fostered a sense of community and conversation much better than Blogistan does, and for one reason: for any given topic, there was generally one "location" where discussion of that topic was appropriate, or at most, a few. You wanted to talk about shortwave radio, you posted in rec.radio.shortwave. You wanted to talk about the travails of being single in the late 1980s, you posted to soc.singles. Blogistan, on the other hand, is far more fragmented. The watering hole of Usenet is now a million different bars, and getting a drink in one doesn't mean someone getting a drink in another is going to hear what you have to say. Most bars have only a few patrons. Tools like trackback and Technorati and RSS keyword searches are patches on the system to try and recreate that singularity of location, but they don't work well, and with Blogistan's tendency to expand like the universe in the wake of the Big Bang resulting in ever increasing fragmentation, they may never work as well as the simple classification scheme of Usenet. And I say Blogistan, but I really believe that this fragmentation is an endemic characteristic of the web as a whole. The web combines the worst aspects of fragmentation and asynchronicity to make for a terrible combination when it comes to community building.

I wrote a long post a few months ago about how well or poorly different Internet protocols/tools were suited for community building and making friends. Since I'm well out on the edge of the "long tail", nobody noticed. I used to write such posts more often, but now, not so much; the nature of Blogistan ensures that the "conversation" is taking place somewhere else if it's happening at all. On Usenet, people would have seen the post, and it would actually have been part of a conversation. It makes more sense for me to write in this medium for my mom; I know she'll see it if I post it here. (Sorry, Mom, this one isn't for you.)

I miss Usenet as it existed in the late '80s and early '90s. I made a lot of friends there, some of whom I'm still friends with today. I met my wife there. When the spammers showed up and poisoned the well, I felt a real loss. I think of the newsgroups I used to frequent almost 20 years ago the way my mom thinks of the house in Detroit she grew up in that decayed over the decades (after her family left, of course) to the point of becoming a crack house before being burnt to the ground.

With all the discussion about A-listers as the new gatekeepers and such, Doc mentioned that one way he finds articles on sites he doesn't frequent is by subscribing in an RSS aggregator to keyword searches on his name, among other topics of interest. So, hi, Doc. It's not much of a system if one of the best ways to get noticed is to mention an A lister by name. And especially since Doc mentioned this, it seems like the incentive is now there to game the system and get attention by mentioning A-listers like Doc the way I do here, or popular keywords for that matter. No doubt the spammers are already beavering away, and those keyword searches will become less and less useful. That's one area where the correspondence between Usenet and Blogistan is approaching 1:1.

(Later: there's a followup to this post in the next post.)

Posted at 10:15 PM
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Saturday, February 11, 2006

What, no jackhammers?

I went to the eye doctor yesterday and got a prescription for new glasses. I'm considering some retro-ish frames to replace the ten year old pair of glasses I'm currently wearing (which would be retro in a different way). In the course of doing some research online, I stumbled across an online forum for eye care professionals. One thread in particular was about a pair of frames I'm interested, and the assembled opticians and technicians discuss ways to keep said frames from slipping down ones nose. At about this point, the discussion gets a little silly....

Posted at 5:02 AM
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Wednesday, February 8, 2006

4th of February, Asbury Park (Grimy)

In Asbury Park, redevelopment, like the future, is here. It's just unevenly distributed. (With apologies to William Gibson and Bruce Springsteen.)

Cement block railing, detail, Metropolitan Motel, Asbury Park, NJ

Posted at 4:58 AM
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Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Black swans, February 4

I had some time to kill Saturday morning after dropping Laura off at the dentist's office, so I headed into Asbury Park with my camera. I stopped at Sunset Lake when I saw a bunch of birds. The most interesting were a pair of black swans.

Poking its head above the parapets

Posted at 5:13 AM
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Sunday, February 5, 2006

Before and after

Friday night:

Me before haircut and shave

Sunday morning:

Me after haircut and shave

Posted at 11:40 AM
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Friday, February 3, 2006

Killed my groove, I've got to say

Things went wrong today
Bad news came my way
I woke up to find
A wire that blew my mind

Western Union man
Bad news in his hand
Knocking at my door
Selling me the score

Fifteen cents a word to read
A telegram I didn't need
Said she doesn't care no more
Think I'll throw it on the floor

(Via 20/20 Hindsight.)

Posted at 1:44 PM
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Thursday, February 2, 2006

Troubleshooting Javascript

I ran into an interesting problem recently involving Javascript and a marketing e-mail. I'll change some details, but the concepts are the same.

We were developing a form for people to fill out in response to an opt-in e-mail marketing campaign, and wanted the form to be reusable for future campaigns. The server in question doesn't run any dynamic language like PHP or JSP or such, so we were limited to HTML and Javascript. The e-mail is sent out as HTML e-mail with links embedded in it to lead to the form. The links contained information such as an ID for the campaign (not for each user, just to identify which campaign the form was being used for), like so:

http://www.example.com/foo.html?campaignID=123456

When the HTML for this e-mail was on our server, the links worked fine, but when we tested it in actual e-mail, some users got error messages and a blank page instead of our form. If you reloaded the page, it would work.

I was able to duplicate the problem. I had Microsoft Script Debugger installed, so I got more detailed error messages than the users, messages that permission to read some information was being denied.

The problem, it turned out, was that when Internet Explorer had its security settings increased to a certain (recommended) level, if the page was linked from somewhere other than the server containing the page being linked to, Javascript considered certain data tainted and wouldn't allow scripts to access that data, including the URL and the parameters embedded in it. Perfectly justifiable, makes complete sense from a security standpoint, and I wish the browser did that at all security levels.

Reading up on this in Danny Goodman's Javascript Bible, I found that if the two machines in question are in the same domain, for example, www.example.com and search.example.com, you can work around this by setting document.domain to the top level domain they have in common, like so:

document.domain = "example.com";

In this case, this didn't work. It only works when the machines are in the same top level domain, and when you click on a link in an e-mail message, it may have no domain associated with it at all. In a marketing message like this, the domain almost certainly wouldn't be the same, anyway, so we had to find a workaround, one that didn't involve grabbing information from the URL.

The answer was to change the links within the e-mail to link to a separate HTML page for each campaign. That page would use Javascript within the head section to set the variables we had previously tried to set in the URL, and would then redirect to the form. The code looked something like this:

<script type="text/javascript">
<!--

var campaign = new Array(4);
campaign[0] = 123456;
campaign[1] = http://www.example.com/url1.html;
campaign[2] = http://www.example.com/url2.html;
campaign[3] = yes;

var url = "http://www.example.com/foo.html?" + 
   campaign.join("&"); //this is one line

location.href = url;

//-->
</script>

This way, we didn't have to make any changes to the form, which had already been through testing and was working, and we didn't have to create a new form page for each campaign link, just this a new one of these small configuration files. Since the link to the form is now coming from the same server that the form is on, the form can access the required information.

It's not an ideal solution; it requires the user have Javascript turned on, for example, but since the form itself also required Javascript, I figured it was an acceptable move. In something like PHP, instead of doing this, I would still be able to read the data, but would sanity check it to make sure it wasn't doing something harmful, then if not, use it. But with these server limitations, this approach seems to work. If anyone out there has any better suggestions that fit within the limitations of HTML and Javascript only as mentioned above, though, I'm all ears.

Posted at 11:55 AM
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This site is copyright © 2002-2017, Ralph Brandi. (E-mail address removed due to virus proliferation.)

What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

- Albert Einstein, explaining radio


There used to be a cat

[ photo of Mischief, a black and white cat ]

Mischief, 1988 - December 20, 2003

[ photo of Sylvester, a black and white cat ]

Sylvester (the Dorito Fiend), who died at Thanksgiving, 2000.


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